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by on 10 September 2022

Matter of Black Lives


by Dael Orlandersmith

Orange Tree Productions at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until 8th October

Review by Eleanor Lewis

“If you’re born in America with a black skin, you’re born in prison”, said Malcolm X.  Dael Orlandersmith’s play Yellowman further points out that black is only a starting point and there are many types of prison.  This two-hander play is a clever and absorbing examination of what that means in real life.

Two characters, Alma (Nadine Higgin) and Eugene (Aaron Anthony) are growing up in the searing heat of South Carolina in the sixties.  The title Yellowman refers to the derogatory term used to describe the lighter skin tone of Eugene.  Alma is darker skinned.  The action follows the trajectories of both their lives as they become aware of, and struggle to free themselves from the race-based system they’re caught in, before it damages them as it has their parents before them. 

Eugene’s dark skinned, alcoholic father married to his pale skinned mother, despises his son.  Alma’s dark-skinned mother objectifies her as too big and too dark to attract a man to take care of her.  Both parents advise their children not to marry anyone “too dark”. 

Nadine Higgin and Aaron Anthony provide impressive performances, beginning as two happy, optimistic children attracted to each and attaching no importance to skin colour.  Both actors become their own characters at all ages, seeming to generate each stage of development from within themselves rather than assuming a role change.  Both portray their friends, their own parents and a grandparent with small alterations to voice and demeanour, but with no prop or wardrobe changes to help.  Little worlds are evoked: the playground, teenagers discovering sex, a train to New York and then New York itself in all its different guises.  There’s a lot of humour.  Nadine Higgin in particular makes skilled use of physicality with each character she takes on.

Alma gets as far as a job in New York, Eugene follows her and things begin to fall into place. Maybe what is skin deep can be ignored, or maybe it has simply been covering what is festering beneath?  Either way the play’s alarming climax (no spoilers) shrieks the question of exactly how far, if at all, anyone has advanced in ignoring the colour or shade of another person’s skin.

Directed by Diane Page, this intense production is wholly engaging (there were gasps from the audience on more than one occasion and spontaneous cheering at another point).  Where everything depends on the superficial and what is, literally, skin deep, Niall McKeever’s set, a smooth, dark floor is skewed slightly to reveal the rubbish and dust-covered empty bottles and detritus cluttered underneath.  The gentle sound, (Esther Kehinde Ajayi) punctuated the action with occasional soft music, and the simple, effective lighting (Rajiv Pattani) echoed the brutal southern heat with spotlights, otherwise softly illuminating the small Orange Tree stage.

Yellowman is the rare combination of a challenging, intelligent, and very entertaining work, which is well worth seeing.

Eleanor Lewis, September 2022

Photography by Ali Wright

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